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Despite bold proclamations that it hasn't encountered a single infection -- or death -- North Korea apparently is not immune to the coronavirus pandemic as it continues to pummel the globe.
"Kim Jong Un has been at pains to show that it's business as usual, conducting missile tests and convening the rubber-stamp Supreme People's Assembly," Jung Pak, senior fellow for Foreign Policy and East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institute, told Fox News.
The Hermit Kingdom vowed that it had zero coronavirus infections -- even as neighbors China and South Korea battled the emerging pandemic earlier this year -- aimed at showing domestically and internationally that Kim Jong Un has things under control.
But North Korea almost certainly has cases.
Multiple experts and analysts agree that hundreds are succumbing to the deadly virus -- officially termed COVID-19 – and that it is profoundly rattling the country's top brass.
In mid-February, multiple news outlets reported at least one suspected case of coronavirus in a trade official who had returned from China. He was under quarantine, but went to a public bath – a violation of the lockdown orders – and reportedly was shot in the head at the behest of supervising authorities.
Last month, China warned citizens not to linger or farm too close to the North Korean border, stressing they could be shot amid the North's aggressive measures to curb infections. According to a new rule, anyone violating North Korea's quarantine without permission was executed.
But although Pyongyang announced it would "be ready" to deal with the disease should it cross into its borders, it has insisted there are no cases amid the global public health crisis.
Instead, the country touted the reclusive regime's hasty closing of the China border and how it shuttered tourism. It disseminated photoshopped images of citizens in masks and workers donning personal protective equipment (PPE) while disinfecting streets. Vans decked with loudspeakers patrolled streets, issuing hygiene instructions, Pak said.
"Pyongyang's state media reported that 7,000 people were being held for 'medical monitoring,' but the extent of any outbreak is unknown," said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation.
However, "some South Korean NGOs with access to sources in North Korea report that major cities in North Korea have been hit by the coronavirus epidemic, and many regions suffer from a shortage of daily necessities," said Klingner.
"They report that people are starving to death in both border regions and inland areas, and more than 100 North Korean soldiers have died of the coronavirus."
While precise figures are next to impossible to ascertain, analysts estimate coronavirus cases in the thousands, coupled with hundreds of deaths – many of them soldiers.
Several North Korea observers noted that schools appear to be closed, indicating measures to avoid a mass outbreak, which likely would cripple its already fragile health care system.
"The regime also has some capacity for testing and treatment," Pak noted. "But these are probably only available for the elite in Pyongyang."
According to Klingner, the regime recalled officials stationed in China and imposed a quarantine on all inbound cargo.
"All items transiting North Korean ports or crossing border bridges are kept in isolated areas for 10 days. Pyongyang also cracked down on smuggling – including even reducing its own state-run smuggling," he continued. "The government ordered border units to prevent smuggling, announced harsh punishments against smugglers, and augmented monitoring."
The United Nations recently approved six-month waivers for the World Health Organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Doctors Without Borders to send thermometers, portable ventilators, resuscitators, gloves, face shields, surgical masks, gowns and goggles to North Korea, Klinger said.
"The first shipments of international medical aid have arrived at North Korea's borders, but delivery is hampered by the regime's strict quarantine restrictions," he said, adding that the supreme leader also turned down initial requests from the Trump administration to assist in the virus fight.
As it stands, almost half the population of 25.5 million is reportedly malnourished and suffering from health woes.
Most recent reports this week describe North Korean officials asking last month for assistance in dealing with the burgeoning pandemic. Radio Free Asia this week reported that Pyongyang told citizens that cases have been recorded – without issuing further figures or details.
Thomas Byrne, president of the Korea Society, pointed out that several news items emerged this week, indicating the regime's economic fallout as well from the pandemic.
"[One report] is that the government plans to issue bonds to finance funding shortfalls, including to infrastructure such as the Pyongyang General Hospital," he said. "And South Korea's Yonhap reported Tuesday that North Korea's Cabinet newspaper, Minju Chosun, is scrounging around for more revenue, from citizens and for businesses to fulfill their tax obligations – because businesses cannot fulfill their tax obligations, the government will need to resort to deficit financing for the first time in 17 years."
As of Tuesday afternoon, coronavirus has claimed the lives of some 174,000 people globally, with more than 2.5 million confirmed cases in almost every country in the world.
Meanwhile, rumors surfacing late Monday prompted U.S. intelligence to closely monitor reports that Jong Un may be in failing health following apparent heart surgery.
The leader oddly missed his grandfather's birthday celebration on April 15, despite being spotted four days earlier. Daily NK, a South Korea–based publication, claimed that he had an emergency April 12 procedure as a result of his "excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork."
Multiple U.S. officials told Fox News that no unusual behavior had been identified inside the hermit country. However, the rumors do raise critical questions about the ripple impacts of a regime shake-up.
Harry Kazianis, director of Korean studies at the Center for National Interest, said that the "nightmare scenario" would be that Jong Un was alive, but in a coma or a vegetative state for a long stretch of time, and chaos could erupt.
"We could see a situation where a power struggle breaks out for temporary or permanent control resulting in armed conflict or even a civil war. And considering the fact that North Korea is armed to the teeth with every type of weapon of mass destruction known to man, millions of lives could very well hang in the balance," he said. "While North Korea might be the most rogue of rogue states, having a stable North Korea is something we should all pray is our current reality."
Multiple U.S. intelligence officials noticed recent signs that Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, has been ascending in the political sphere. Just weeks ago, in the first public statement ever issued in her name, Yo Jong denounced South Korea following its criticism of the North's first rocket test this year.
"There is no succession mechanism in the North Korea constitution or within the Workers Party of Korea. It is unknown whether Kim Jong-un has designated a successor. We can speculate that perhaps his sister Kim Yo Jong has been designated as his successor based on her recent promotion and the fact she has begun making official statements in her name beginning last month," added David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
"It is unknown whether a woman, despite being part of the Paketu bloodline, could become the leader of the Kim family regime," he said.